Back when the Oklahoma City Thunder abruptly traded swingman James Harden just days before the season began, the initial shock reaction was that the franchise was crazy. Harden was coming off a 2011-12 season where he averaged 16.8 ppg, 4.3 rpg and 4.7 assists en route to winning the Sixth Man of the Year award and seemed to be a major piece of the Thunder’s success for years to come.
Unfortunately, Harden’s high price tag of $55 million-plus was too rich for the small-market Thunder, resulting in OKC packaging him to the Houston Rockets for Kevin Martin and rookie Jeremy Lamb. Lamb has yet to see much time for the Thunder, but Martin’s play off the bench has been exceptional, for a number of key reasons.
Although Martin has thrived as the number one option for the Sacramento Kings and the Rockets from 2007-2011, Martin may have been better suited for a reserve role such as the one he occupies for the Thunder. Martin has both the ability to create his own shot with the second unit, as well as play off of superstars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook late in games.
While Harden is coming into his own and off to a great start with the Rockets, Martin in his own right has quietly exceeded expectations for the Thunder so far. Harden has the edge in scoring due to his starting role in Houston, averaging 24.6 ppg to Martin’s 17.8 ppg off the bench. But take a look at their head-to-head statistics per 36 minutes:
Martin may be averaging slightly fewer points than Harden, but Martin has been the model of efficiency for a wing player, shooting .536 from three-point range and .947 from the free-throw line. Those shooting percentages are off the charts, and also rank Martin in the top-10 in NBA for both to this point. And Martin is doing all of this on 6.4 fewer shot attempts per 36 minutes than Harden, leaving more shots for designated gunners Durant and Westbrook.
One area where Harden is missed for the Thunder is his ability to create for his teammates, as he was often the primary ball handler late in games for OKC last season. But Martin’s ability to spread the floor as an outside shooter may be a better fit next to Durant and Westbrook, who are both players that tend to need the basketball to create their offense.
Whether or not the acquisition of Kevin Martin will pay off in the long term for the Thunder is up in the air, as Martin’s $12.9 million contract expires after this season. At 29, Martin may be willing to re-sign for less with the Thunder next season, and if he can continue to play anywhere close to this level not only would the Thunder save money but they may have also found a better fit for their team for the foreseeable future.